Posts filed under ‘Stephen Dunn’

Little Essay on Communication

Stephen Dunn


Safe to say that most men who want
to communicate,
who would use that word, are shameless

and their souls long ago have drifted
out of their bodies
to faraway, unpolluted air.

Such men no doubt have learned women
are starved
for communication, that it’s the new way

to get new women, and admission of weakness
works best of all.
Even some smart women are fooled,

though the smartest know that to communicate
is a form of withholding,
a commercial for intimacy while the heart

hides in its little pocket of words.
And women use the word too,
everyone who doesn’t have the gift

of communication uses it.
It’s like the abused
asking for love, never having known

what it feels like, not trusting it
if it lacks pain.
But let’s say that a good man and a good woman,

with no motives other than desire
for greater closeness,
who’ve heard communication is the answer,

sign up for a course at the Y,
seek counseling,
set aside two hours in the week

for significant talk. What hope for them?
Should we tell them
very little, or none at all?

As little or none as there is for us,
who’ve cut
right to the heart, and still conceal,

who’ve loved many times well into the night
in good silence
and have awakened, strangely distant,

thinking thoughts no one should ever know?

I’d try to communicate what I love about this poem, but anything I say will be superfluous so I’m not going to bother.

Isn’t it gorgeous, though?


June 26, 2007 at 1:06 pm 4 comments

The Insistence of Beauty

Stephen Dunn


The day before those silver planes
came out of the perfect blue, I was struck
by the beauty of pollution rising
from smokestacks near Newark,
gray and white ribbons of it
on their way to evanescence.

And at impact, no doubt, certain beholders
and believers from another part of the world
must have seen what appeared gorgeous –
the flames of something theirs being born.

I watched for hours – mesmerized –
that willful collision replayed,
the better man in me not yielding,
then yielding to revenge’s sweet surge.

The next day there was a photograph
of dust and smoke ghosting a street,
and another of a man you couldn’t be sure
was fear-frozen or dead or made of stone,

and for a while I was pleased
to admire the intensity – or was it the coldness? –
of each photographer’s good eye.
For years I’d taken pride in resisting

the obvious – sunsets, snowy peaks,
a starlet’s face – yet had come to realize
even those, seen just right, can have
their edgy place. And the sentimental,

beauty’s sloppy cousin, that enemy,
can’t it have a place too?
Doesn’t a tear deserve a close-up?
When word came of a fireman

who hid in the rubble
so his dispirited search dog
could have someone to find, I repeated it
to everyone I knew. I did this for myself,
not for community or beauty’s sake,
yet soon it had a rhythm and a frame. 

The first time I read this poem I was struck by how well it captured the ambiguity of my own response – not merely to 9/11 but to most things that are conventionally touching / beautiful. I too take “pride in resisting the obvious”, a trait that has earned me a (not entirely undeserved) reputation for being a snob. I too, as a result, end up feeling conflicted and somewhat guilty every time I find myself deeply moved by something cliched and sentimental.

Dunn’s poem both limits and legitimizes this search for the non-obvious. What it does, I think, is distinguish between the claims of beauty and the claims of art. There may be no place for the sentimental in art, but not everything beautiful is artistic. The trick then is to balance the two claims – one the one hand to continue to look for the non-obvious and seek beauty where it is not commonly seen, on the other hand to accept and treasure beauty when it is given to us (that is, when we experience it – for beauty, in truth, lies more in the heart of the beholder than in his / her eye). When something moves us deeply, we must express and celebrate it, not because it makes for great art, not for “community or beauty’s sake” but simply to savor our own emotion.

Dunn himself, of course, spends considerable time in the poem seeking the non-obvious.  “must have seen what appeared gorgeous – / the flames of something theirs being born” are lines that few people (hopefully) will be able to read without experiencing at least some shock. That 9/11 is a terrible, terrible thing is so hard coded into our minds that the idea that someone may actually have exulted in it, though obviously true when you think about it, is not one that comes easily. The mind revolts against the word “gorgeous”, as against the idea of the collapse of the twin towers being somehow a birth (I am reminded of Yeats – “a terrible beauty is born”). And it is this difficulty that the rest of the poem seeks to resolve. “The better man in my not yielding / then yielding to revenge’s sweet surge”, Dunn writes. But what is being fought and eventually yielded to here is not revenge alone, but the idea of a response that is conventional precisely because it is human.


May 27, 2007 at 2:04 am 1 comment

Sleeping with Others

Stephen Dunn


Because memory and its intrusive nostalgias
lie down with us,
it helps to say we love each other,

each declaration a small erasure, the past
for a while reduced to a trace,
the heart’s palimpsest to a murmur.

Still, our solitudes are so populated
that sometimes after sex
we know it’s best to be quiet –

time having instructed us in the art
of the unspoken,
of in the sufficient eloquence

of certain sighs. Regret shows up
sleeping with, but never between us.

Like joy it doesn’t stay long, quickly tiring
of the language
used in its name, wanting only itself.

We’ve made this bed. We’re old enough
to know sorrow may visit
now and then, and that the world slides in

at will – ugly, dark, confident it belongs.
Nothing to do but let it
touch us, allow it to hurt, and remind.

An exquisite poem about the erosion of passion, about the way desire is rubbed smooth by memory. About the way old loves accumulate in the heart, making it heavy, until each new advance is a footstep sinking into loose sand. About bedrooms filled with intimate ghosts, and the impossibility of moving on from what has touched us most deeply, what we hold most near.

I love “it helps to say we love each other” and the “sufficient eloquence of certain sighs”. But more than that I love the tone of the poem – the way Dunn pulls off the perfect balance between weariness and regret and tenderness.


May 13, 2007 at 11:46 am 1 comment

The Stories

Stephen Dunn

Listen(to Hatshepsut read)

I was unfaithful to you last week.
Though I tried to be true
to the beautiful vagaries
of our unauthorized love,
I told a stranger our story,
arranging and rearranging us
until we were orderly, reduced.
I didn’t want to sleep with this stranger.
I wanted, I think, to see her yield,
to sense her body’s musculature,
her history of sane resistance
become pliable, as yours had
twenty-two years ago.
I told her we met in parks
and rest stops along highways.
Once, deep in the woods,
a blanket over stones and dirt.
I said that you were, finally,
my failure of nerve,
made to the contours of my body,
so wrongly good for me
I had to give you up.
Listening to myself, it seemed
as if I were still inconsolable,
and I knew the seductiveness in that,
knew when she’d try to console me
I’d allow her the tiniest of victories.
I told her about Laguna, the ruins
we made of each other.
To be undone — I said I learned
that’s what I’d always wanted.
We were on a train from Boston
to New York, this stranger and I,
the compartment to ourselves.
I don’t have to point out to you
the erotics of such a space.
We’d been speaking of our marriages,
the odd triumphs of their durations.
“Once….,” I said, and my betrayal began,
and did not end.
She had a story, too.
Mine seemed to coax hers out.
There was this man she’d meet
every workday Thursday at noon.
For three years, every Thursday
except Thanksgiving. She couldn’t
bear it anymore, she said,
the lies, the coming home.
Ended, she said.
Happiest years of my life, she said.
At that moment (you understand)
we had to hug, but that’s all we did.
It hardly matters. We were in each other’s
sanctums, among the keepsakes,
we’d gone where most sex cannot go.
I could say that telling her our story
was a way of bringing you back to life,
and for a while it was, a memorial
made of memory and its words.
But here’s what I knew:
Watching her react, I was sure I’d tell
our story again, to others. I understood
how it could be taken to the bank,
and I feared I might not ever again
feel enough to know when to stop.

Hatsheput writes, ‘The first line is such a brilliant hook. I like this poem because of the interesting questions it raises about how we tend to define infidelity. Is it infidelity to be riding rough-shod over sacrosanct memories? Is there such a thing as sacrosanct memories? Is the act of constructing that memorial of words, an homage to the beauty that was, or a trivialization of the indescribable in that which was? A slight to the effing ineffable It-thing. To quote Donne, is it “profanation of our joy to tell the laity of our love”?’

BM adds, there is a sense of déjà vu when you read this poem. Many of us have been spectators to (or been part of) intimate conversations between complete strangers, as they unravel their lives, reveal their deepest secrets. The shield of unfamiliarity and transient nature of the space (a train ride, for instance), makes these moments perfectly ripe for sharing – complete openess, no scores, no history, no checks on accuracy and no offence or judgement – its a stranger’s story told to a stranger – it almosts smells like … fiction. It might be the story of lost love, an illiness hidden from dear ones, or plain frustration, failure, … infidelity. Every life has some of these and The Stories reflects them, so well.

You see, I want this poem to be nicer
than life. I want you to look at it
when anxiety zigzags your stomach
and the last tranquilizer is gone
and you need someone to tell you
I’ll be here when you want me
like the sound inside a shell.

– Dunn

More on Stephen Dunn here.


May 23, 2006 at 10:19 pm 2 comments